“And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”
With a crunch of gravel, the Vanguard Staff Car rolled to a halt. Inside, the Air Minister grimaced at the sudden movement, rummaged in his pocket with a shaking hand and extracted a handful of blue pills. He crunched them down, sighing in relief, then took a long gulp from a hipflask, wiping his mouth with his gold braided, powder-blue sleeve. Now only one part of the ritual remained; he pulled a large cigar from an inside pocket, stuck a match and inhaled with pleasure as he felt the cumulative effects of his ‘sovereign remedy’. Now he was prepared for anything.
He left the car, leaning heavily on his swagger stick, and limped to the grand door, his eyes passing over the Tudor stonework. Chequers is more impressive than Chartwell, he conceded, but I would not trade my view of the Weald for anything. The two British Legion officers of the National Constabulary, their black and khaki uniforms immaculately pressed, came to attention as the Air Minister passed through. Idly, he nodded at them- for if one failed to acknowledge the efforts of Tommy Atkins and Jack Tar, especially in a time of national crisis, all their efforts in the last decade had been in vain.
Another man, this time wearing the uniform of an Army colonel, was waiting at the foot of the famous staircase. “They’re up in the Breakfast room, sir”, he remarked, casually; the First Lord smiled in appreciation. “Thank you, Bernard.” A damn good Private Secretary, he thought, even if he is a vain little creature. I must talk to him again about wearing that non-regulation slouch hat.
He climbed the stairs slowly, panting at the effort; even with the pills, the pain was bad. As he did every time his leg troubled him, he thought back to that day near Eupen in ’19. No self-pity, he reminded himself, you only got out of it because that fool Sassoon took the second bullet.
Catching his breath, he paused to glance at the collection of Cromwellian memorabilia on the landing at the top. His gaze lingered on the Lord Protector’s death mask, as it always did; are we his heirs, he thought, have we imposed rule by the sword? He shook the notion away; there is no room for doubt in the land of the New. The formation of the National Government in those dark days of 1927 was undoubtedly not a revolution, and neither was it, despite the bleatings of the liberal press, a coup. The ineffectuality of the ‘old gang’ had simply become too dangerous, recognition of the immense sacrifice offered by the Common Man too long delayed. His mind went back to his visit to Japan the previous year, and what Baron Sadao had said about his hopes for his own nation. Not a revolution; a ‘Windsor Restoration’, he thought, and smiled.
The door to the breakfast room was closed, but he heard voices within and entered without knocking; the PM was never one for excess formality. Four men were lounging around the table, and one, wearing a khaki uniform with the rank of a naval lieutenant displayed on the shoulder, looked up as he entered the room. Even now, after the trials of a decade in power, he was still the handsomest man in England, though perhaps not the man that Yeats had rhapsodised over; the fair hair now had the slightest dusting of grey, but the famous blue eyes were just as piercing as ever. The scar on his cheek, a souvenir of the desperate fighting on the Moselle in the dying days of the War, caught the eye, yet somehow enhanced his beauty rather than detracting from it. “Glad you could join us, old man,” the Prime Minister drawled.
The Air Minister nodded his head in respect and pulled up a chair to sit with the others. Old man, he repeated to himself, ruefully. It was true of course. Of the ‘War Cabinet’, only Fuller was of a similar age, a fellow Victorian; the others were children of the War, disciples of the New. Not for the first time, he thought of Harrow, and the lectures old Porker had given of Hesiod, where the Olympians ruthlessly supplanted their parents the Titans. My generation destroyed the old world, he mused; it is only right that our children have taken the responsibility of building the new.
Silence fell for a moment as he sat, and the Prime Minister leant back in his chair. “Good. Now I can introduce our final guest,” he remarked, and as if on cue, the door flew open to admit a handsome figure in the uniform of an Admiral. There was a shocked pause, and the occupants of the room scrambled to their feet; the new arrival began to laugh, clearly delighted at their consternation. “Please, don’t get up on my account,” the King chuckled, “there’s work to be done and you know I don’t stand on ceremony.”
The Chancellor collapsed back into his chair, taking a drag on his cigarette with a broad smile. “I thought you and the Queen were at Sandringham, sir?”
The King nodded indulgently, finding a chair and dragging it over to the table to sit. “Officially, Tom, I am, and am currently in discussions with the Maraharaja of Bharatpur. A sound boy who won’t breathe a word of my absence; last time I saw him my little Valkyrie was teaching the poor chap how to Lindy Hop. I borrowed a motorcycle to RAF Marham and then took one of the new Meteors for a spin. Nobody need know I’m here, and I expect you not to mention my presence; while we can sit on the papers, rumours can spread and the last thing we need is a war panic.”
There were grunts of agreement around the table. The Prime Minister cleared his throat; “John, if you could do the honours?”
The Secretary of State for War stood, taking a stack of folders containing maps and photographs and passing them around the gathering. “Yesterday evening, our High-Altitude observation Dirigibles observed troop movements around Wupperthal consistent with a partial remobilisation of the Reichswehr. It is my belief that Herr von Blomberg has ordered the imminent re-occupation of the Rhineland; it is an opportune moment after all, what with the unrest in France and the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter from tomorrow morning.”
There was an awkward silence; not the bloody astrology again, John, the Air Minister thought, but at least it gives me the opportunity to seize the moment.
“As you know, gentlemen” he said confidently, “I’ve had the Royal Expeditionary Force at a state of heightened readiness since d'Espèrey and the Lacau fellow- I won’t even try to pronounce his full name- launched their coup d’etat last month. It would not be a difficult matter to respond to such a flagrant breach of the Geneva Treaty. I could have Leigh-Mallory’s lot dropping on the rooftops of Dusseldorf within twenty-four hours-“
There was a general murmur of disapproval, the King looking particularly stricken. “Surely that’s a bit steep, Winston? We talked with little Willy about this last summer over dinner in Corfu; he asked me how I’d like it if the French banned us from having any troops in Kent. Chap had a point. Personally I feel for the Germans; they’ve had that dreadful Gajda fellow in Prague calling for their blood for years now, and now Desperate Frankie’s going to be doing the same in Paris. And all the while the Reds are building up their forces…”
The Chancellor grunted assent, his moustache bristling. “I agree. Any German action is a reaction to the new regime in France, and in any case the Rhineland is a complete distraction to the real threat to peace in Europe- that’s Dzerzhinsky, not the Reichswehr. Look how quiet the Poles have been lately! The Kaiser is right- it’s only fair for the Germans to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.”
The Information Minister nodded, thoughtfully. “That tallies with what Mass Observation is telling us about the public mood; although-” he flashed his trademark grin, “-partly that’s because that’s the line of the day.”
The Old Man has been outmanoeuvred again, the Air Minister thought, despondently, his hand automatically feeling his pocket for his pill box; they’ve already made a decision without me and have got Mass Observation onside. All Britons knew how the National Government assiduously monitored their views through the latest scientific techniques; how much more democratic than relying on the imperfect middle men of Parliament! Less known was the Organisation’s clandestine seeding of concepts and phrases helpful to the Government in line with Dr Dicks’ theories of Thought Contagion. The punning phrase “Unity Government” had become ubiquitous since the King’s recent marriage; few outside the War Cabinet realised this was the result of MO agents introducing it into a thousand casual conversations.
The Prime Minister smiled, patting his colleague on the knee; two sets of famously piercing blue eyes met. Not for the first time, the Air Minister recalled the rumours that intermittently swirled round both men; the tales from the PM’s days in Cambridge were well-attested, and well-informed gossip suggested that the Information Minister’s predilection for posing as one of the Working Men went beyond Mass Observation information gathering. How does one know though? he thought. This New World, the world of the Soldier, suits the bond of Achilles and Patroclus.
“Thank you Tom,” the Premier said. “I think we have a consensus then; we will restrict ourselves to a formal statement of concern. The King will return to Sandringham and the Maraharaja, where he will perhaps call the Kaiser to discuss the situation informally. Perhaps, Winston, you could organise some aerial exercises to drive home the point that we retain the capacity to intervene should we have seen fit? There’s a good chap.”
The Air Minister nodded, chastened. “Yes Rupert.” A thought struck him. “What about Parliament?”
The Prime Minister smiled. “What about Parliament, Winston? They’ll have their debate, but the people have spoken- through us. I will not see a drop of blood spilled over this, old chap. Not British, not German. We have lost too much already, you see; and we may need it for the real struggle ahead. Let von Blomberg take back what’s rightfully his, and then let him act as a bulwark to the Bolshiveks.”
He paused, and his smile shifted into something more predatory. “Unless you feel differently?”
The Air Minister shook his head, as the others got up to leave. “No, Rupert” he said, quietly, hands fumbling for his pill case. There is no room for doubt in the land of the New.